Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, December 13, 2019

Four Things

Four random wins from the past month...

1. I have been using a "split vertical" bookmarklet (like the one here) for years to make it easy to find information from one part of a web page without losing my place, or to have two pages next to each other in a single browser window.

Before I wake the kids up, I flip this over to full screen mode on my standing desk. It's easy to check if I forget anything. (Image by the proprietor. Feel free to copy or use. Attribution is appreciated.)
It finally dawned on me that it would be nice to open two or three pages at a time like this, without going through the bookmarklet every time. On inspection of the page source, I discovered this was ridiculously easy.

So I now have a small collection of two- and three-pane pages I use for planning purposes. At right is a screenshot of the one I use on school mornings. At a glance, I have weather, the day's lunch menu, and a list of reminders of things to do. A nice bonus is that the rightmost pane is still visible when I am working in another application, so no switching back and forth or moving windows around.

2. I had lost my eyeglasses over a week before and was about to give up.

Then, last weekend, as we decorated for Christmas, my eight-year-old daughter piped up: "Found your glasses!" The black-rimmed glasses had been sitting on a dark brown bookshelf at eye level -- mine, not hers! -- near the entrance to the master bedroom. My wife and I had probably each passed them at least a hundred times.

"Sniper Eyes" does it again!

3. I needed to grab a quote from a PDF someone else had scanned. Some looking around spared me either copying the passages by hand (slow and error-prone) or having to print it and re-scan it with OCR (slow and annoying). OCRmyPDF very quickly performed as advertised, "add[ing] an OCR text layer" to the PDF. Assuming a good quality scan, a document becomes searchable, too.

Highly recommended.

4. The good news: I have been very organized about how I keep track of old projects for nearly a decade. The bad news: I would have done this completely differently if I had it to do over again, with the files not being scattered across different directories (and even levels) throughout my user account.

Judicious use of the find and grep utilities in scripts has fortunately allowed me to preserve my old organization scheme (and all the links between documents), and yet effectively have all the advantages of having everything in one directory. It is now much faster and easier to find and use old materials when I am doing research.

As a bonus, I now sometimes get to smile at my own cleverness instead of experience mild frustration and annoyance when I have to do this.

-- CAV


Productivity Advice from Marc Andreessen

Thursday, December 12, 2019

On days when I am stumped for blogging topics, I dig into the many bookmarks I save when browsing the web at odd times, like when I'm waiting in line at the supermarket. When I do this, I usually I find something really useful or interesting that I managed to completely forget about.

Today's recovered gem is a post outlining tech entrepreneur Marc Andreessen's thoughts on productivity, which are peppered with links throughout. Some of these are quite similar to what I already do, and others aren't. And many of you have probably heard of at least some of the things he discusses (e.g., David Allen's GTD system). But all of them are valuable in that they will make you think -- about whether you are satisfied with a given aspect of your work practices. And if you're not, he will probably give you an idea to consider or try.

As a sample, I'll throw out the first part of what I found to be his most unusual piece of advice:

Obviously, not having a schedule would be an auto-fail in some industries... (Image by JESHOOTS.COM, via Unsplash, license.)
Let's start with a bang: don't keep a schedule.

He's crazy, you say!

I'm totally serious. If you pull it off -- and in many structured jobs, you simply can't -- this simple tip alone can make a huge difference in productivity.

By not keeping a schedule, I mean: refuse to commit to meetings, appointments, or activities at any set time in any future day.

As a result, you can always work on whatever is most important or most interesting, at any time.

Want to spend all day writing a research report? Do it!

Want to spend all day coding? Do it!

Want to spend all day at the cafe down the street reading a book on personal productivity? Do it!

When someone emails or calls to say, "Let's meet on Tuesday at 3", the appropriate response is: "I'm not keeping a schedule [this year], so I can't commit to that, but give me a call on Tuesday at 2:45 and if I'm available, I'll meet with you."

Or, if it's important, say, "You know what, let's meet right now."

Clearly this only works if you can get away with it. If you have a structured job, a structured job environment, or you're a CEO, it will be hard to pull off.

But if you can do it, it's really liberating, and will lead to far higher productivity than almost any other tactic you can try.

This idea comes from a wonderful book called A Perfect Mess, which explains how not keeping a schedule has been key to Arnold Schwarzenegger's success as a movie star, politician, and businessman over the last 20 years. [format edits, emphasis in original]
Again, Andreessen admits that not keeping a schedule -- altogether, anyway -- is impossible for most people. But many can at least partially realize this level of freedom. (And he has just reassured me that my new method of tracking deep work is on the right track.) That said, I won't be using his method of dealing with proposals for meetings, because I try my best to avoid phone calls during the day.

There are many kinds of work circumstances, personal preferences, and professional needs. I doubt anyone is going to adopt all of Andreessen's methods, but I think just about anyone can profit by thinking about them, especially if something about one's work routine isn't quite right.

-- CAV


How Compartmentalization Can Get in Your Way

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

In a post about "Techie Luddites," tech blogger JCS notes a particularly striking example of compartmentalization, a cultural phenomenon that Ayn Rand commented on nearly fifty years ago:

Thought experiment: Replace the newspapers with smart phones. (Image via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.)
... In an interesting article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Morgan G. Ames tells us how many of the "technical elite" refuse to let their children use electronic devices such as phones, tablets, or computers and how they send them to schools that proclaim themselves to be traditional and tech-free.

As Ames points out, many of these technical people consider themselves to be the smartest people in the room and while that may be true regarding technology, they don't know anymore than the rest of us about child development or the wider social implications of technology. They are, in fact, subject to the same fashions and misinformation as everyone else.

If that claim seems a little overwrought, consider this shocking fact: at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, "[a] techie-dominated, tech-shunning school," only 35% of kindergarteners had been fully vaccinated before California made such vaccinations mandatory. If even the anti-vaxxers have established a beachhead among the technical elite, we must certainly abandon any claim to being immune to new luddism [sic]. [bold added, format edits]
This is alarming, but I disagree with the last sentence.

Why?

Let's first ask: How can otherwise intelligent adults fall for such obviously ridiculous ideas as the anti-vaccination movement, or the slightly less ridiculous idea that children shouldn't be exposed at all to electronic devices? By failing to integrate new knowledge outside their areas(s) of expertise. This failure leads them to ineffectively evaluate claims to knowledge that they otherwise would easily reject, or at least fail to realize the need to investigate such claims more thoroughly. And so we have someone who (for good reasons) couldn't imagine not safeguarding against a computer virus -- taking some random stranger's advice at face value (but checking it poorly, if at all) and failing to vaccinate his children.

Ayn Rand mentioned this phenomenon in her 1972 essay, "Selfishness Without a Self," but her student Leonard Peikoff fleshes out the idea more thoroughly in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand:
A somewhat better case is the man who does integrate his mental contents, but only within an arbitrarily delimited square or compartment. An economist, for instance, may eagerly relate a new economic idea to other ideas within his field, but refuse to consider its implications for related fields (such as politics, ethics, history) or their implications for his own. "That's not my concern," such a man characteristically says about anything but his own specialty; "that's somebody else's domain." Ayn Rand calls this type of non-integration compartmentalization.

Compartmentalization is an improper form of specialization. It consists not merely in specializing, but in regarding one's specialty as a dissociated fiefdom, unrelated to the rest of human knowledge. In fact, however, all knowledge is interconnected. To cut off a single field -- any field -- from the rest of cognition is to drop the vast context which makes that field possible and which anchors it to reality. The ultimate result, as with any failure of integration, is floating abstractions and self-contradiction. A simple example is the conservative economists who scornfully dismiss philosophy, then advocate the profit motive in economics and the Sermon on the Mount in church.
Obviously, compartmentalization can lead to bad choices on the part of someone for whom this is a modus operandi. And this certainly can cause harm or inconvenience to others through their actions. But it can also cause problems for observers, who might subsequently have to get past prejudice this might induce. In my caption, I point to a humorous comparison of men reading smart phones versus men reading newspapers. That sure does make the digital minimalist crowd look like idiots, doesn't it?

Or does it?

The parents who won't let their kids have any screen time are generally being ridiculous, but we shouldn't let them cause us not to consider the merits of advice by those who, like Cal Newport, suggest using such devices much less frequently than many do. They -- and this is crucial -- give good reasons for the advice, as one might suspect when one starts considering the differences between newspapers and smart phones. For example, how commonplace was it for people to fall into holes or run into things a century ago, because they were reading newspapers as they walked or drove?

This is obviously not to say that we need to look afresh at every idea such people embrace, but we would do well not to let a compartmentalizer's apparent adoption of an idea weigh too heavily in how we evaluate that idea. That person does not really understand what he professes or does. As usual, one must do one's own thinking first-hand, as far as possible. (This doesn't make us not need to consult experts, for example.) It will not immunize against mistakes altogether, but I think it makes the mistakes less frequent, less severe, and much easier to correct when they have been made.

-- CAV


Leftists Recycle Corporate Go-Alongs

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

News bulletin to American corporations: You never got (nor ever will get) credit for going along with virtue signaling.

The latest case in point? Recycling.

Now, picture this with three times the bins, a stop watch, and an air horn. (Image by Ingo Hamm, via Unsplash, license.)
The New York Times has just come out with a slanted, disingenuous opinion video titled, "The Great Recycling Con." Its subtitle says just about all you need to hear: "The greatest trick corporations ever played was making us think we could recycle their products." But do go ahead and view the video, because it is short -- and shows how brazen that assertion is with its own reporting. (Chutzpah? Stupidity? Who cares?) Said reporting reveals how confusing government regulations are about labeling items as recyclable.

This is not to let corporations entirely off the hook -- See below. -- but the very idea of focusing a substantial amount of blame onto corporations for the futility of recycling is ridiculous, in light of the incessant media drumbeat, "activist" hectoring, and government jawboning for same over the past several decades. The role the corporations do have to play is neither small nor entirely innocent, but it is understandable: With the government on the side of recycling and most people being both misinformed and on the moral defensive against this wasteful practice, many companies understandably decided to "go along to get along," much as American railways did back in the 1800's, when they paid monetary bribes to remain viable:
[W]hat could the railroads do, except try to "own whole legislatures," if these legislatures held the power of life or death over them? What could the railroads do, except resort to bribery, if they wished to exist at all? Who was to blame and who was "corrupt"--the businessmen who had to pay "protection money" for the right to remain in business--or the politicians who held the power to sell that right?
But look what happened: It was the railroads who got the blame for playing a game they didn't create. And now, American companies are getting the same treatment after their attempts to morally bribe environmentalists by racing out to label everything as recyclable -- and even though they followed the very laws the environmentalists put on the books.

The corporations thought they were buying goodwill with these labels, but all they got was blame at a later time -- recycled from the very fact that they used the labels at all.

Perhaps, one day, business leaders will learn that a better plan is to oppose government regulation as the immoral ordering-around that it actually is. In the meantime, let me point out another video that deserves even wider circulation than that made by the New York Times: Pen and Teller's demolition of recycling -- which is hosted by BitChute -- from their series, Bullshit. They make many of the same arguments I made in a piece on recycling, but in more entertaining form. My favorite part is when they time people on a patently absurd nine bin system -- that they all profess to support -- and blow air horns when they make mistakes.

Doing the same thing during the New York Times video would make it practically impossible to follow.

-- CAV


An Environmentalist Pushes Back on Alarmism

Monday, December 09, 2019

In an article at Forbes, Michael Shellenberger of Environmental Progress notes that "no credible scientific body has ever said climate change threatens the collapse of civilization much less the extinction of the human species." More important, he notes that the common practice of tossing apocalyptic predictions around like croutons over a salad has some negative, real-world consequences:

Really? Why? (Image by Markus Spiske, via Unsplash, license.)
In September, a group of British psychologists said children are increasingly suffering from anxiety from the frightening discourse around climate change. In October, an activist with Extinction Rebellion ("XR") -- an environmental group founded in 2018 to commit civil disobedience to draw awareness to the threat its founders and supporters say climate change poses to human existence -- and a videographer, were kicked and beaten in a London Tube station by angry commuters. And last week, an XR co-founder said a genocide like the Holocaust was "happening again, on a far greater scale, and in plain sight" from climate change.

...

Journalists and activists alike have an obligation to describe environmental problems honestly and accurately, even if they fear doing so will reduce their news value or salience with the public. There is good evidence that the catastrophist framing of climate change is self-defeating because it alienates and polarizes many people. And exaggerating climate change risks distracting us from other important issues including ones we might have more near-term control over. [bold added, links omitted]
These tactics emphatically include -- and I think are essentialized -- by Greta Thunberg's recent call for panic. Considering that (1) the hallmark of panic is blind action, with cooler heads issuing orders, and (2) the remedies proposed by the panic-mongers are quickly seen to be wrong and life-threatening upon careful consideration; let me add that this kind of framing would lead any sane person to question the motives of the people making the claims. This would be true and reasonable, even if the claims were correct and the cause just, neither of which is the case with whatever green totalitarians are choosing to call global warming at the moment.

There is a lesson here, and not just for people who might be concerned about the effects of carbon dioxide on the climate. Even if a course of action would (such as essentially outlawing fossil fuels without an alternative in place) result in a catastrophe, screaming that the sky is falling is no way to be taken seriously.

Those of us who are interested in truly making a positive difference in the world would do well to view climate catastrophism as a case study in what not to do.

Climate alarmism has been as successful as it has been only because the culture of our society has been disarmed by hundreds of years of altruism and collectivism, and several generations of Progressive education. Competing for scaring others the most does nothing about this problem, is aiming at exactly the wrong audience, and will not create the kind of change we need. That requires rational persuasion, which is the farthest thing on earth from herding a panicked crowd, and far more effective, at least if human flourishing is the goal.

-- CAV


Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, December 06, 2019

Blog Roundup

1. Most educated people know that Ayn Rand advocated capitalism. (Whether they know what capitalism is is another question altogether.) And many even know that Rand advocated selfishness -- also commonly misunderstood. But what about pride? I doubt it, and I'd bet even fewer people know what it actually is than know what capitalism or egoism really are.

This thought occurred to me when I read the post "Humility vs. Pride" at the blog of the Texas Institute for Property Rights, which explores why that virtue has an undeserved bad name:

In other words, the proud person trusts the judgment of his own mind rather than the arbitrary edicts of God or His earthly spokesmen. And trusting one's own mind, we are to believe, is a bad thing.
The above is a re-framing of a religious explanation for the animus against pride, and kicks off a good, short outline of what is wrong with that all-too-common attitude.

2. In her discussion of political opposition to Black Friday in France, business professor Jaana Woicheshyn points out a timely book on the subject of green totalitarianism, and a review of same:
Green totalitarianism is not just a vague threat -- it is steadily encroaching, as Belgian philosopher Drieu Godefridi argues in his new book: The Green Reich: Global Warming to the Green Tyranny. You can read Donna Laframboise's review of it here. She reports that in Godefridi's view, environmentalism is more "ambitious in its desire to subdue" humanity "than any previous doctrine," including Marxism. [links in original, format edits]
Woicheshyn's further remarks on the folly of corporate appeasement of the greens are also worth your time.

3. At Thinking Directions Jean Moroney has some interesting and useful things to say about some common mystical explanations for subconscious phenomena. Here is a relevant quote regarding the "power of prayer," which many people swear by:
What is happening is similar to what happens when you think on paper. When you quiet yourself -- separate yourself from distractions, breathe, let the hurly burly recede for a bit -- you give yourself some free mental space and time to listen to the quiet answers in the back of your mind. Your own quiet answers reflect everything you know about the situation -- your own experience and expertise, your own knowledge of the nitty gritty details, and your own value system. It is no wonder that this self-generated idea is often better advice than you can get from others, who don't understand the situation the way you do.
When I was young and still giving religion the benefit of the doubt, I prayed every evening. The ritualism of the prayers themselves aside, the thinking I did at the same time was quite similar to what Moroney describes.

I agree completely with her further remark that it is valuable to try to understand what is (or might be) going on, rather than stop at pat explanations:
When I read about some popular advice which is justified by a theory I disagree with, I don't immediately assume that the advice is impractical. I go to look at what's involved, how I would explain the process, and why I think it might or might not work. If I think there's a plausible alternate explanation for why so many people find benefit, I experiment with it to see for myself. That is how I have broadened my understanding of how the mind works.
Amen, so to speak.

4. Scott Holleran has written what sounds like a fascinating article about Pittsburgh, which is also his home town:
Image by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen, via Unsplash, license.
In the piece, which may become available online, I focus on the Forties, when Rand wrote her observations of Pittsburgh in her journal, corresponded with an admiring book critic for a Pittsburgh newspaper and prepared for the movie adaptation of her 1943 novel The Fountainhead. All of these tie into each other and relate to an interesting comment by Objectivist scholar Greg Salmieri, whom I interviewed for the article. Dr. Salmieri, who's editing the University of Pittsburgh Press series of books studying Rand's philosophy, gives his opinions on Rand's ideas and how they've been interpreted within the context of today's false left-right political dichotomy.

I am delighted that publication of the first article about Rand and my hometown coincides with the first reprinting of my article about Andrew Carnegie in Capitalism Magazine (read it here). Carnegie is one of my first heroes. I became fascinated with him as a boy. As with Ayn Rand, the more I learn and know about this man, the more I admire him. I wrote this piece several years ago as a sidebar to an article I'd been asked to write for a magazine. [link in original, format edits]
Here's the last paragraph of the piece on Andrew Carnegie:
That the 'Great Egoist', who attached significance to names and put his name on colleges, halls and steel companies, loved his work and lived his life in comfort is abundantly clear. That he did so by making an effort to think, write, and speak as an intellectual businessman is not as widely known. But, today, we are the secondary beneficiaries -- in railroads, bridges, and things made of steel -- in Western Union, Madison Square Garden, and Carnegie Mellon University, which he created or helped to build -- in places like public libraries, and Carnegie Hall -- of all that Andrew Carnegie thought, wrote, and produced.
Here's hoping that the newer piece also becomes available online.

-- CAV


"Renewables" Show Environmentalist Indifference

Thursday, December 05, 2019

I am pretty sure I've mentioned the following excellent point by Keith Lockitch of the Ayn Rand Institute, but it bears repeating:

Image by Andreas Gücklhorn, via Unsplash, license.
It is only on the premise that the environmentalist movement is truly driven by a concern for human well-being that its vehement attacks on carbon-based fuels (without which human life as we know it in the developed world would be impossible), its cavalier lack of any alternative plan, and its active opposition to proposed alternatives (whether real ones like nuclear or hydro, or fantasized ones like solar), make no sense.
With our negligent media touting renewables from here to Timbuktu, one could understandably wonder about the description of solar as fantasized. A recent post at the conservative PowerLine blog provides ample evidence from the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow that this description is quite accurate. For example:
Using batteries to back up sufficient power to supply U.S. electricity needs for just seven straight windless days would require more than 1 billion half-ton Tesla-style batteries. That means still more raw materials, hazardous chemicals and toxic metals.
John Hinderaker notes further that this would cost "around $6.6 trillion for 24 hours [of] storage for the U.S. That is much more than the entire budget of the U.S. government." There is similar information for wind, as well as a plethora of excuses for the environmentalists demanding we implement these technologies today to turn around and oppose them tomorrow:
[W]ind turbines don't last long -- 20 years -- those massive disposal problems are now coming to the fore. Every wind turbine contains 45 tons (90,000 pounds) of non-recyclable plastic that must be disposed of in landfills. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to decommission each wind turbine.
The blog post reads a little like it is trying to argue against an environmentalist proposal on environmentalist grounds. That would be a mistake for a variety of reasons. But the information provided is useful for the purpose of illustrating the point that Lockitch makes: Environmentalists don't give a tinker's dam about human well-being.

-- CAV